Self-Care Selfish? Wrong Question.

Recently I had the opportunity to talk to a group of strong, passionate women about self-care. I knew not to assume that all in the audience would believe like me that self-care is nothing short of a necessary part of life. It didn’t surprise me when the question of self-care being selfish came up. I shared with the group that for me the only way to get away from this line of thinking was to do the mental gymnastics that I am my best self when I practice self-care and that by being my best self I am able to help others more effectively. Later though, when I was having a walk and talk chat with my cousin a different answer emerged.

I realized that because I have been intentionally practicing self-care for going on a year and half I no longer feel a need to justify it. I do it because it is good for me and I don’t really care if anyone believes this act to be selfish. My cousin talked about how it is important that we as black women don’t give power to people who might question our actions. She’s right and not just for black women.

By allowing an outside perspective on my life and decisions to invade my little world I give over power to that outside perspective. Nothing says that I have to engage with this question.

For the longest time, I have felt a need to respond and engage, taking for granted that this was a choice. Nothing says I have to engage. Nothing says I have to respond. So before I start to answer a question or engage someone in a difficult conversation I think from here on out I will pause. I will take a weighted pause for myself. Is this something I have to do? Is this something I want to do? What are the outcomes of responding or engaging? If I don’t like the answers then I won’t engage.

Over the years, I have given too much of myself away. I have poured out my cup time and time again leaving nothing for myself. I have exposed myself to individuals who mean me harm, usually unintentionally but that doesn’t necessarily make it better or undo the harm they cause. This way of being is not sustainable. All renewable resources need to take in more than they put out. In farming, if you don’t put nutrients back into the soil the ground will cease producing nutrient rich plants. If you continue to pollute a water source without taking time to clean up the mess it will no longer serve as a resource.

I am no different and yet I have continued to drain my nutrients and not clean up the pollution in my life. I think I’m done with that. I value myself more than that.

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I Am Not Ok

                           I am not ok.

These words generally signal the start of a crisis. For many people it’s the sign of someone who needs help instantly. It sends friends and family into a state of panic and worry. This means that many don’t want to voice these words until they truly are in a state of panic. I am beginning to wonder however, with all of the talk recently about mental health and self-care, how we might change this.

Listening to him speak to a group on a different continent, it felt as though he was in my living room speaking directly to me. Sangu Delle talked about taking the shame out of self-care. I watched his TED talk and instantly felt moved by this idea. Why is there shame in the first place? On social media and in life we celebrate with each other and when something really bad happens we mourn with each other. We can laugh with each other. So, why is it only a brave few who seek a pick me up if they need it?

                        I am not one of the brave few.

A friend of mine recently posted to Facebook that she wasn’t feeling strong. The tone of her post was almost apologetic. She was apologizing for feeling a few moments of insecurity, but she was brave enough to put it out there.

I have, like my friend, felt at times that because of who people see me to be I can’t be who I am. People see a person who is strong and organized and on top of things. Some may even look up to me and by showing something different, maybe I would hurt them in some way. I have to wonder if this is one reason why there is shame in self-care.

If this is true, it’s a flawed logic and it doesn’t give enough credit to people. My friend who posted that she wasn’t feeling strong received a flood of comments filled with love and care. By opening up, she allowed others the opportunity to serve and support her.

This give and take is what true friendship looks like. So, how on earth can we create spaces on the internet and in life where this kind of friendship is normalized? The solution is that we have to normalize needing and seeking help. That was my big take away from the TED talk. Mental health is a subject that I have seen cause unease in many people. The idea of making this issue smaller seems to be what the TED talk was getting at. If we can remove the shame from self-care, normalize seeking help, and create space for people to not be ok, maybe mental health wouldn’t seem so scary.

After all when a friend is feeling down, helping them is usually not about addressing a mental health crisis or having to know exactly the right words to say. Generally it’s just about creating spaces for people to be open and honest about where they truly are. Rather than forcing the idea that we’re all “fine.”

I’ve started in the smallest ways trying to create this space for people in my life to be not ok. When I have a meeting and someone pauses before they say they’re fine, I make a joke. “What good liars we are.” I say. It’s not a huge step, but it is a start. If as a society we could just start creating little spaces for people to be honest about where they are, even if that’s not in a good place, things might change.

Maybe then, saying you don’t feel strong today could be received similarly to saying you’re having a great day. Because waiting until a person is in crisis is not the best way to go about things.

Most people I know have mastered feeling horrible and continuing to function. Sadly the working world and commitments of life don’t truly care about feelings. The dog still has to get walked, the clothes have to get cleaned, and for most people if you want to keep your job you have to be in by 8am. So generally with my close friends if they say they are not ok my first response is not panic, but just a simple commitment to listen and support in whatever way I can.

If it became possible to normalize being not ok, I wonder how many emotional barriers and walls would come down. How would it change how we viewed our mentors and heroes?

Ultimately I believe this to be important because I think in the long run it could save relationships and lives. If in every workplace, organization and relationship there was space for people to not be ok, when a true moment of emotional crisis happened it wouldn’t be a shock. And leaders would know that they didn’t have to “keep it all together” for appearances. They would know they could lean on their teams and families for support because they had practiced many times before the crisis happened.

Because no matter what, the crisis will happen. Eventually there will be a death in the family or an illness or a car crash or a bad breakup.  Something will happen that isn’t a regular “I am not ok” moment. But by then not only will the person experiencing the low or sad or angry moment have practice in expressing what they need, so will their community. With practice people get better.

And why wouldn’t we as a society want to commit to getting better at supporting one another when we need each other most?

On the Road to Angry Brown Lady

I started this post on December 6, 2016 like this…

For the first time in my life, I see myself clearly on a track and feel uncertain how to get off. The horrible injustice that seems to be finding its way to my eyes for consumption and emotional response has increased greatly. I am not stating that the amount of injustice in the world has changed, merely my observance of it.

My default response to most things is sadness and empathy. I feel sadness that the world continues to exist this way and that our global community cannot figure out how to listen deeper and love greater. Then I try to understand why and how the conflicts, disagreements and deaths happen. A new response is slowly rising within me.

I am angry. I am annoyed. I am furious. I feel deep rage. I wish ugly horrible things to the leaders instigating and calling for violence and intolerance.

This is not who I have been in the past. Anger for many reasons is not my default emotion. Anger makes me feel powerless. All of my impulses are good neither for me nor the world at large. So I sit turning the anger inward and it becomes deep sadness. It is better for these reasons to avoid this emotion. Only recently and out of necessity have I begun to embrace it.

This does not change however that I feel myself pulled in a direction with no way to deviate. There are two of me. The empathetic me tied to the train tracks and the angry me gleefully blowing the horn of the train about to run empathetic me over. Angry me has a handlebar mustache and evil laugh. I need both mes to get off the tracks.

I realize that within the anger there are deeper feelings. Behind my anger is a sense of deep exhaustion. A famous quote comes to mind.

 

“I am sick and tired of being sick and tired!”

                   – Fannie Lou Hamer

 

Read quickly about the speaker behind these words and you see something stronger than anger. You see a woman who was beaten, written off and still did what she thought was right. You see a woman determined.

I think even deeper within the anger is a sense of brokenness. More than sadness. I feel broken by the fact that just as I am recovering emotionally from one blow another comes to shatter what little solace I have found.

I don’t want to head down the track not only because I don’t desire to become a stereotype but also because I don’t desire to become someone I’m not. I try to live my life as authentically as I can and anger is not me. It’s not my go to.

There is also a huge part of me that fears the stereotype. I identify as brown to acknowledge that I am not only black. I have a vast and beautiful heritage filled with African American and Native American history.

Do a quick google image search of “Angry Black Woman” and you will find you have options. You can have: old, funny, ape, big, attitude, michelle, glee, mad, reality tv or at work sub categories for your search. Google conveniently provides them in pretty rainbow colored buttons above the original search results.

I don’t want to be that. I don’t want to be a meme. I like most humans want to be respected when I express feelings.

You don’t have to look far to see Native American Nations being made fun of for expressing emotions. I can’t even start to dive into that here. Maybe in another post.

So I find myself on the track. I’m brown and don’t feel like changing that. The world likes to make fun of any nonwhite person who expresses emotions. And I feel angry based on exhaustion and brokenness. What do I do now?

Avoiding, sitting on the sidelines only keeps me out of the public eye. It doesn’t necessarily change all of the feelings going on inside. And unfortunately I don’t see the injustice changing or moving anytime soon.

 

Flash forward to now…

It’s hard for me to believe that it has been 6 months since I wrote the words above. I didn’t post them then because I was still wrestling with myself and with how to write this post.

I don’t think I’m on the track anymore. There aren’t multiple versions of me comically trying to kill each other. No handle bar mustaches. I’m off the track and on a path.

Yesterday I graduated from a leadership program. I have had many unsettled feelings about the program and on this day I had an interaction that upset me.

I felt crazy. I felt militant. I felt angry. I reached out for help. And with that help came a clear sense of direction.

Today, I listened to words of wisdom flow from my dear cousin to me. I think of my amazing writing partner who’s more than family. I think of the words of my grandmother reminding me of my heritage and the strength that lives there. Today I think of my mother always at my side, my continual support. And I think of my white husband, the proud feminist and gentle hand by my side and at my back holding me up when my legs quiver.

I come from strong women. My heritage is beautiful. Today was the first day that someone complimented me on this. It was a good reminder.

The United States Government has tried to kill my people and failed in the 1800’s, 1960’s and even today. Black and Native people resourcefully and skillfully continue to live.

That is my commitment. I am going to keep living. I am going to keep being myself. My loud, emotional, thoughtful, inquisitive, brash, angry, empathetic, silly self. I love me. It took months alone to remember this and I won’t back.

I won’t go back to quieting myself for others. I won’t go back to tip-toeing around issues of discrimination, racism, privilege, inequality, injustice and every other thing wrong with the world.

I will no longer poison myself by turning feelings of anger inward. If I’m labeled a stereotype so be it. I know who I am.

I am a beautiful brown girl ready to learn, listen, grow and have a great impact on the world. I hope you’ll join me.